On rats, shifts, and teaching

When I was taking violin lessons in college, I had a few stressful weeks trying to perfect a particularly awkward shift and finger pattern high on the E-string. That note required a lot of practice time trying to get it in tune – practicing one measure of an etude again and again until it started to feel somewhat comfortable. Yet, even when I felt close in my own practice times, I would go to my lesson full of nervousness, profoundly missing the shift and getting discouraged at my lack of progress.

Around the same time, some friends of mine invited me to be a part of a one-gig band that would blend avant-garde classical composition with thrash metal. In other words, we would perform one 20-minute “song” filled with as much discordant and loud noise as possible. Since there really wasn’t any pressure to play any real “notes” in the traditional sense, the 20 musicians on stage for this experiment could basically try anything in a radically judgment-free space. My thought was that probably more fun to be on stage then in the audience, but in fact we filled the room with friends, who listened attentively and screamed and applauded wildly. It was one of the more safe and musically affirming environments I’ve ever experienced, and at some point, I decided to try to incorporate that high note giving me so much trouble. And I nailed it perfectly. Ironically, the one time that being in-tune didn’t matter was one of first times I felt able to play the note in tune.

Hearing from other music makers and friends has taught me that I’m not alone in this, in being profoundly influenced by the encouragement or discouragement of those around me. Your playing can improve significantly simply by relaxing and building up your confidence level. But yet, often our level of comfort is profoundly impacted by the behavior of others around us, a quality I often attribute to illusive “vibes” that I don’t understand, yet am profoundly impacted by.

Recently, I heard a fascinating radio show about some of the fascinating discoveries that psychologist Robert Rosenthal made from his 1963 experiments looking at how our expectations can shape someone else’s performance.   Rosenthal had people run rats through a maze, and labeled some of the rats “maze bright” and others “maze dull.” The catch was that these deceptive labels for two basically identical sets of lab rats of average intelligence. The rats weren’t actually unusually intelligent or unusually dumb, but the volunteers ran tests operating from those assumptions. What Robert discovered was breathtaking – the rats falsely assumed to be intelligent ran through mazes with almost twice as much speed and dexterity. This was a very surprising and strange result, which he attributed to the ways a research’s expectations shaped their interactions. The researcher who assumed he or she was working with a smart rat would touch it with more gentleness and encouragement, which would in turn powerfully motivate it to perform better.

So, my unquantifiable sense of the “vibes” of a performance space or teacher that either boosts or reduces my confidence turns out to have a scientific backing. In subtle, subconscious ways, what we believe about someone’s ability influences how we interact with them. This in turn can send an unseen but powerful signal that can powerfully influence our students’ or colleagues’ abilities.

That is why, as a teacher, I always seek to be confident in anyone’s ability. In spite of the many challenges of playing the violin, I believe it is a skill that everyone can develop – and so I always strive to hold on to the belief that every student has the potential to become a great violinist.  The student can sometimes be hard on themselves, but it was hard for me too, at first, and it is only by keeping at it that things begin to get easier.

“Talent” in and of itself is not going to come naturally, although some people may be predisposed to understand one part of the music process better then another. The truth is, there are many different aspects and concepts involved in being a great musician – so that means everyone has to put in a lot of hard work and stretching themselves for it, in some way or the other.

A musician is an athlete, pushing his or her body to the limit of what it can do.

A musician is an artist, adding something new and original to a culture’s conversations about what it finds important.

A musician is a mathematician, deeply examining about the relationships between numerically represented beats and pitches.

A musician is a historian and anthropologist, reexamining a document from another time and place and helping us appreciate it anew.

 A musician is a psychologist, figuring out how to relate to and respond to a wide variety of people, and work together with them. 

And I could go on like this, seemingly forever. Music requires you to use your right brain and your left brain. You will have to learn in visual, auditory, and kinesthetic ways. If learning music doesn’t feel challenging to you yet – don’t worry, because some other aspect of it will! But that also means that you come to the table with strengths, unique gifts that no one else can offer. That’s why you need to keep working at it, and keep playing. The world needs to hear your voice.

And I have some more thoughts about how to deal with these feelings of discomfort or fear that get in the way of letting you play freely and well.  Stay tuned for part 2 soon.


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